Imagine a world without lions.
It seems unthinkable. Yet time is running out for Africa's iconic animal -- along with other big cats of the world like snow leopards, tigers, cheetahs and jaguars. So says internationally acclaimed conservationist, author, filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dereck Joubert.
"We are addicted to killing these animals," says Joubert when we meet during INDABA, an annual travel conference in Durban, South Africa.
In their 2011 documentary, The Last Lions, Joubert and his wife Beverly chronicle the epic struggle of a solitary lioness to protect her offspring from infanticidal males, a rival pride, monstrous crocodiles, opportunistic hyenas and marauding Cape buffalo, among other mortal threats.
A riveting and often heartbreaking saga of survival, The Last Lions is also a plea for the world to take the plight of Africa's signature big cats seriously.
"First, you've got to put the conversation on the table and have everybody saying, yes, lions are endangered," says Joubert. "Until we get to that point, we're going to have endless debates about what to do with them."
Unlike elephants and rhinos, lions are offered little protection from governments or international treaties. Yet since the 1940s, their numbers have plummeted from nearly half a million to just 20,000 today -- a staggering 95% decline.
In addition to rampant poaching and the ever-deepening human-predator conflict arising from civilization's increasing encroachment into their territories, two other factors are largely to blame for the dwindling lion population, according to Joubert. The growing global trade in animal parts for medicinal purposes and the continued acceptance of trophy hunting.
Causing an Uproar
For their part, the Jouberts, who have spent 25 years living and working among lions and other large predators in some of Africa's most remote areas, recently launched the Big Cats Initiative in conjunction with National Geographic.
This wide ranging effort is designed, among other objectives, to halt lion population declines by the year 2015 and restore populations to sustainable levels through local conservation projects, education, and economic incentive efforts. Perhaps its most visible component is a global multi-media public-awareness and fundraising campaign called "Cause an UPROAR" that includes online, social media and mobile components.
But will the efforts of the Jouberts and their supporters be enough to save Africa's apex predators?
Strangely enough, according to Dereck Joubert, the fate of Africa's last lions might depend on East Asia curbing its growing appetite for tiger bone.
Increasingly used in wine, as an aphrodisiac, and in some cases, as a rumoured cure for cancer, tiger bones are in great demand across East Asia. But with fewer than 3500 tigers left in the entire world, the supply is rapidly drying up.
"Lion bone and tiger bone are almost exactly the same. In the last four or five years we've seen this explosion of trade in lion bones coming out of Africa, and particularly coming out of South Africa," explains Joubert.
In the first year that the South African government sanctioned the export of lion bone, 44 lions were ground up and sent to East Asia. Last year, that number was 1300.
"Lions are, in effect, masquerading as tigers. They are dying and their skeletons are being sold as tiger skeletons. As a lion, you can't even die on your own terms," says Joubert.
Night of the hunter?
Nearly as lethal to lions, according to Joubert, is the continued debate about trophy hunting in Africa. Professional lion hunters point out that a large portion of the often astronomical fees they charge their clients to shoot the big cats goes toward economically sustaining local communities, cash-strapped parks and conservation efforts in general, helping to save the lives of many more animals.
"But follow the money," responds Joubert, pointing out that relatively little of the fees foreign clients pay hunting guides remains in Africa. Nor do typical hunting operations employ nearly as many people as do traditional safari lodges. Furthermore, hunting industry employees tend to work sporadically and seasonally rather than year-round, as is the case with most safari lodges, leaving them with fewer career advancement opportunities.
Then there are the hard numbers. Of the 20,000 lions left, roughly 3500 are male lions, the most prized trophy hunters want mounted on their walls. At the current rate of issuing around 600 hunting permits a year, there are only four or five years' supply of males left before the lion hunting industry virtually single handedly extinguishes the species.
"Whatever the debate is about trophy hunting, it needs to be set aside while animals are disappearing," Joubert says, pointing out the other obvious truth about trophy-hunting -- the rarer the species, the more desirable it becomes.
"If hunters were really conservationists they would come to the table and say, 'you know what? You've got a real problem with big cats; we're going to ban it ourselves, stop hunting, and let these numbers recover.' But we can't even have those debates right now while they're shooting declining species," he adds.
You may dispute the argument that continued lion trophy hunting jeopardizes the main attraction in Africa's booming safari industry that brings in an estimated $80 billion annually. Or discount the very real possibility that extinguishing the species and thereby eliminating a vital link in the food chain may potentially trigger ecological disaster. But according to Joubert, you can't hide from the fact that it all comes down to a question of basic morality.
"Haven't we gone beyond this?" he asks? "Are we that insecure as a species that we still have to go out and shoot wild things and put them on our walls? I mean, it's just
Apparently, we haven't yet. And if we all continue to do nothing? If we collectively let the big cats vanish from their natural habitats - which will surely happen if we don't support the heroic efforts of dedicated conservationists like Dereck and Beverly Joubert to help save them? Then surely a part of us as a species that prides itself on its higher consciousness will also begin to die out. That part of us that is still wild and noble and free. And still retains a primal bond with the pride of Africa, its last lions.
To learn more about the global effort to save the world's dwindling numbers of lions, leopards, cheetah and jaguars, visit National Geographic's Big Cat Initiative.
For ideas on how you can help save the world's remaining big cats, including taking action, donating and accessing educational resources, visit National Geographic's Cause an UPROAR.
For more about acclaimed filmmakers and conservationists Dereck and Beverly Joubert, check out their National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence profile.
Proceeds from the Joubert's documentary, The Last Lions, go toward the Big Cat Initiative. Please rent and watch the film today.
Thinking of visiting Africa on safari? You may want to consider the Jouberts' foray into conservation tourism, Great Plains, which has received awards for responsible tourism in London and South Africa.